“They Don’t See Their Work as Surveillance”: Jennifer Pan on Chinese Welfare and Society

In the latest installment of our partnership with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Shazeda Ahmed talks with Jennifer Pan about her book “Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for Its Rulers.”
“It’s like ‘The Minority Report,’ only without psychics.”

In China, how and when is welfare allocated to preempt dissent from people who are seen as threats to stability? And how have ordinary citizens come to lend their services to the evaluation and allocation process at a local level, keeping tabs on their neighbors’ lives and livelihoods to determine their eligibility?

Jennifer Pan is an associate professor of communication at Stanford University. Her recent book, Welfare for Autocrats: How Social Assistance in China Cares for Its Rulers, draws on innovative multimethod approaches to investigate China’s welfare program, Dibao, uncovering counterintuitive revelations about many aspects of the Chinese state. Professor Pan’s surveys, interviews, and experiments illuminate the political complexities behind who is granted or denied Dibao payments as the government prioritizes “stability.”

Shazeda Ahmed, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, and a visiting researcher at NYU’s AI Now Institute, spoke with Pan about how Welfare for Autocrats upends conventional thinking about state assistance in China, and where Dibao might be headed given China’s increasing reliance on technologically mediated governance.

Shazeda Ahmed (SA): Your book spoke to my own research on the social-credit system and the power of public shaming to shape people’s behavior. For instance, one kind of welfare program in China, called Dibao, publicly posts the names of those receiving payments. Their neighbors can see this. We know from prior research that the shame of receiving welfare isolates Dibao recipients. In turn, this isolation makes recipients even more dependent on state payments.

This raises the question: Who is targeted for payments and why?


Jennifer Pan (JP):  Zhongdian renkou (重点人口), “targeted populations,” is the official Chinese government designation (the name has been around since 1950) for people who are seen as potential future threats to the regime. Today, these targeted populations are some of the people targeted for payment through the Dibao policy.

Zhongdian renkou are individuals whom the Chinese government has insufficient evidence to prosecute, but who are placed under intensive surveillance and sometimes additional controls. This is done so that the regime can prevent these individuals from committing crimes in the future.

It’s like “The Minority Report,” only without psychics.

One group of zhongdian renkou are people who are suspected of endangering state security: people who might participate in public disturbances, such as riots or revolts, who might engage in religious activities the Chinese government has deemed to be illegal, or otherwise threaten “national security and social stability.” A related group are people the Chinese government thinks have the potential to create a disturbance and engage in some sort of retaliation or act “recklessly.” Another group of zhongdian renkou are people who have been released from detention of one form or another within the last several years. Finally, zhongdian renkou also includes people suspected of committing future murder, rape, human trafficking, robbery, theft, or fraud.

Targeted populations are people who have not been accused, not to mention convicted, but simply those the Chinese government suspects might take certain actions in the future. Just who is zhongdian renkou is a classified state secret, and even this concept of zhongdian renkou is supposed to be an internal term. It is not supposed to be discussed outside of the police system.


SA: Let’s back up. How does welfare work in China? What are some of the main ideas and institutions underpinning Dibao, the welfare program the book investigates?


JP: Dibao is China’s main social-assistance program. It covers both urban and rural China. My book, Welfare for Autocrats, focuses on the urban program, which, in 2017, covered around 13 million people and represented about 64 billion Chinese yuan in expenditures.

Dibao is a means-tested, nonconditional cash-transfer program. Means testing in this case refers to the fact that anyone with per-capita household income below a certain locally set level—called the Dibao line—is formally eligible.

The program is supposed to be nonconditional, which differs from many cash-transfer programs that we are more familiar with, such as Bolsa Familia in Brazil. With Bolsa Familia, households receive payments only if they meet certain conditions, like vaccinating their children or sending their kids to school. Dibao is the largest such program in the world for the population it covers.

Dibao is also one of the few social welfare programs in China that is not regressive. In the last 20 years, programs like health insurance and pension insurance have grown to privilege the wealthy over the poor. This means that they increase social inequality. Dibao is unique in China in that direct assistance comes from the government to recipients in a manner that is economically nonregressive.

China’s civil affairs system administers Dibao, and it is funded by both the central government and local governments. Local governments have a great deal of power over the Dibao program, because they are primarily responsible for hashing out the details of implementation, such as setting the Dibao line.

SA: Some portraits of China depict the country as a top-down, micromanaged bureaucracy. You show something different: that, on the ground, the bureaucratic processes underpinning Dibao work through the labor of many different kinds of people.

Could you describe who is involved in deciding who is eligible for—and who receives—Dibao, like neighborhood administrators, residents-committee members, block captains, grid captains?


JP: It is absolutely a mistake to think of China as a top-down, micromanaged bureaucracy, and, in the academic literature of political science and sociology, that is not the way China is described. The Chinese government bureaucracy and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are characterized by decentralization and competition.

These aspects of decentralization and competition are revealed, in my book, by demonstrating how Dibao works in practice. When someone wants to obtain Dibao, they start at the neighborhood residents committee. Neighborhoods are the urban equivalent of villages, typically consisting of a few thousand households. Neighborhoods fall outside of China’s formal administrative governance system. Even so, in practice neighborhoods are very much under the influence of the CCP, as residents-committee members often hold leadership roles in the local Communist Party branch.

The members and workers of the residents committee are the points of contact between the government and the Chinese public across many policy areas. There are only a handful of residents-committee members and thousands of households in a neighborhood, so “block captains” and “grid captains” augment the work of the residents committees by communicating government policies to residents and gathering information about residents.

In the past, these block captains have helped enforce China’s one-child policy, for example, by gathering information on married couples and monitoring women of childbearing age for signs of pregnancy. In times of public-health crises, block captains help enforce quarantine, conducting temperature checks and restricting residents’ movements in and out of the neighborhood. In the context of Dibao, residents committees call on block captains to gather information about applicants and recipients.

Even though residents committees are not supposed to play a gatekeeping role in the Dibao application process, they do, because they are responsible for assembling the large amounts of paperwork required to submit a Dibao application. They do turn away applicants who they think are unlikely to be eligible, and their work on a Dibao application can make or break the application.

Residents committees and block captains, in collaboration with local police departments, are involved in the identification, monitoring, and management of zhongdian renkou. This means the same individuals who facilitate the provision of welfare benefits also conduct surveillance. Block captains who visit households to check on receipts of Dibao payments are the same people who gather information about these households for the local police.


SA: Your interviews revealed that neighborhood administrators know the things that are directly relevant to Dibao assessment. But they also know about people who are having marital difficulties. They also might, for example, go observe somebody’s cart on the street and figure out how much money they are actually making from vegetable sales. Their role reminded me of Karen Levy and Lauren Kilgour’s work on “surveillance deputies,” where ordinary people take on the labor typically associated with law enforcement or government.

Do they do this work because the state’s goal of maintaining social stability resonates with them? How are locals brought into these roles?


JP: There is a long history in China of bringing ordinary people into state surveillance and repression work. The block captains I observed are often recruited by members of the residents committee or recommended by other block captains. They are overwhelmingly women who are of retirement age in China, in their 50s and 60s.

For the book, I conducted over 100 semistructured interviews with Chinese government officials, residents-committee members, block captains, and Dibao recipients. I don’t have a sense from this fieldwork that block captains are pressured into these roles. They do it for social standing in the community. They believe they have a task that is important in the community, important for social order and harmony. They don’t see their work as surveillance. They see their work as communicating the policies and stances of the government to their neighbors and helping enforce those policies. Surveillance is part and parcel of that task.

SA: You also talk about “repressive assistance,” which, you say, “involves the provision of material resources—cash and in-kind benefits—to increase the cost of collective action and limit contention. Repressive assistance sugarcoats repression so that it appears normal, nonthreatening and benignly paternalistic.” Do Dibao recipients see it as repressive?


JP: A core feature of repressive assistance is that it doesn’t look like what we usually think of as repression. When we think of repression, we think of violent coercion, killings, imprisonment, torture, or, at the very least, some threat of violence, but there is nothing coercive about repressive assistance.

Giving Dibao to zhongdian renkou—so as to preempt threats to political order—is what I call repressive assistance. Repressive assistance occurs when material benefits raise a contender’s cost of taking action. Specifically, the distribution of benefits creates opportunities for repeated interactions, facilitates state surveillance, and makes recipients more amenable to influence by fostering bonds of obligation and dependence. All this can mean that, ultimately, recipients are not only less willing, but less able, to engage in the activities the government wants to suppress.

In my fieldwork, I find that those who are touched by repressive assistance, both the recipients and the people who are carrying out the program, do not see the program as coercive. Instead, they see the benefits as a form of support from the government, a way for the government to help and make things better. However, it is important to call this phenomenon “repression,” because of how material benefits are targeted and how the provision of material benefits increases recipients’ costs of taking action, especially actions against the state.


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SA: Can you describe how you connect repression and Dibao in your research? You developed an innovative approach to tracking protest activity across social media.


JP: Protests and collective action are an incredibly important phenomenon to the study of any country for both scientific purposes and for policymaking.

There is, however, very little empirical data about protests and collective action in countries like China, where the government wants to keep protests under wraps for fear of social mobilization. We collected social media posts and images from Sina Weibo, which is the most popular microblogging platform in China. Then we used deep-learning algorithms on the text and images to identify offline protest events. In the book, I use the resulting dataset of protests in China to examine whether the distribution of Dibao to targeted populations is associated with differences in the level of local protests.

I find that the distribution of Dibao for repressive assistance generates backlash and more protests. However, this backlash does not result from anger over repression but rather anger over distribution. People are protesting in their neighborhoods and beyond because they do not see zhongdian renkou as “deserving” of welfare benefits.


SA: You say, “Stability in 2013 does not have the same meaning as it did in 1993, and if we, as scholars, reduce the concept to having a constant meaning over time, we risk misinterpreting the phenomenon we observe.” Can you explain what you mean by that and how your concept of “seepage” captures this evolution?


JP: Seepage is a process of institutional change where one government priority alters the allocation of resources and hence the goals of an unrelated area of governance.

In the China case, the government priority is political order, or what the Chinese government would call “stability”; the unrelated area that it affects is welfare distribution through the Dibao program. Officials in the Chinese regime, whether at a local level or at higher levels, are all prioritizing “stability.” Maintaining stability is an important part of their performance criteria and their performance evaluations. At this point, stability, for some, may be a social norm as well. The priority of stability in part explains why those who carry out repressive assistance do not see their work as repressive—because they are serving this higher, and in their minds important, goal of stability.

However, what’s easy to forget is that the meaning of stability has changed over time. When Deng Xiaoping used the term in the 1990s, the idea was that China’s economic reforms, in particular privatization, would produce social unrest and social instability. In order to prevent unrest from hindering the goal of economic progress, welfare programs such as Dibao were needed to provide a social safety net to ameliorate the economic factors precipitating protest. This view was supported by the type of protests that characterized China in the 1990s, when mass protests were led by laid-off workers and pensioners who were suffering as a direct result of economic reforms. However, then you have 1999, when thousands of Falun Gong practitioners surrounded the central headquarters of the CCP, representing the largest collective-action event in Beijing since Tiananmen in 1989. Importantly, Falun Gong protesters mobilized not because of economic grievances but rather for social and political rights. This, I find, is the beginning of the change in how the CCP thought about stability. Instead of understanding protest and instability as a result of economic development, economic development comes to be seen as a way to achieve stability, and stability becomes the goal.

This changing understanding of stability produced seepage of political order into unrelated policy areas such as Dibao. After the Falun Gong protests, public security and justice departments began issuing verbal instructions and policy documents that emphasized the provision of Dibao to populations they wanted to control. Rather than being used to resolve the economic conditions leading to unrest, Dibao comes to be used to control specific individuals seen as threatening to the stability. The seepage of political order explains why Dibao is directed at targeted populations and why Dibao provision results in repressive assistance. I suspect that the seepage of political order also happens in many other domains in China.

SA: Information technology is also shaping Dibao, through the means of payment. Mobile and digital payments are everywhere in China. In fact, cash has become a lot harder to use in many cases. How will this change Dibao?


JP: Dibao payments are already digitally distributed. But there are even more significant ways that digital payments shape Dibao.

Think eligibility. In my fieldwork, residents committees have a great deal of discretion in the process of ascertaining income and assets. As payments go digital, they will potentially have less leeway and discretion in calculating income and assets.

This is important, because discretion is critical to the use of the Dibao program for repressive assistance. Many eligible households who meet official eligibility criteria do not receive the benefit, while zhongdian renkou are prioritized. As financial systems go digital, it may be harder for residents committees to turn away households.


SA: You chip away at the idea of complete technological control by acknowledging that autocrats are forced into trade-offs when they rely on technology to augment governance. Toward the end of the book, you discuss how increasing automated surveillance of the Chinese population would lead to people being wrongfully included in the targeted-population category, where they will be “trapped” in programs that impose “preemptive control.” What, if anything, would have to happen to alter the course of this future that you envision?


JP: That is a really important question. As I see it, altering the course of this future depends on the Chinese government moving away from prioritizing stability above all else.

Right now, the CCP appears to believe that the development of the nation can come only with stability. Even as a scholar studying China, I sometimes fall into this line of thinking.

Then I remind myself that as recently as the 1990s, during a period of rapid economic growth in China, the Chinese regime thought the relationship between prosperity and stability was the other way around—that economic development is what is important, and even though growth could generate instability, instability could be managed by strong social policies.

The assumption now is that stability comes first and everything else follows. Getting out of that mindset is fundamental.


This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom. icon

Featured image: Jennifer Pan. Photograph courtesy of Jennifer Pan